May 26, 2008

Who Reads Scott Anymore?

Skipping back along a chain of links this morning, I found myself at this article in "The Reader Online" by Brian Nellist, a long-time member of the English faculty at the University of Liverpool (and, among many other things, co-editor of the edition of Margaret Oliphant's Hester that I recently used in my graduate seminar on Victorian Women Writers). Titled "People Don't Read Scott Anymore," the article pushes off from the scene of Mr. Ramsey reading Scott in Woolf's To the Lighthouse, in which "Charles Tansley their intellectually arrogant house-guest has declared ‘People don’t read Scott any more’ and Mr Ramsey, who does, needs to confirm that what he admires is still alive on the page." "The answer to Tansley’s taunt," Nellist proposes,
is experto crede, not ‘Trust the professional’, heaven forbid, but ‘have faith in the man who’s tried it’ and that means because literature allows us all that privilege, ourselves reading.
He follows this up with a fascinating and detailed account of the experience of reading Scott, particularly The Antiquary, the novel Mr. Ramsey is reading in To the Lighthouse. Some samples:
Scott is a historical novelist not mainly because he is interested in inventing a new genre or likes picturesque effects but because the past provides a medium through which he establishes the difference, between himself and the reader together, from the characters (in the whole range of his moods there is no single character who can be identified directly with the novelist himself). This difference does not express the Modernist apprehension of the isolation of personality within its inevitably over-evolved identity but the opposite, a sense that we can after all in part understand lives inevitably beyond our own experience. Scott uses history and picture to maintain his balance between the warmth of knowing where the characters are coming from to admit their inevitable helplessness, and yet preserve a stoical silence over our incapacity to inhabit the same human space. . . .

Scott requires of us not that Paterian aesthetic of intensity but a generous acknowledgement of permanent difference to which we are to bring heart and mind in understanding, the older idea of sympathy in fact. Sympathy makes rational objections, moral dissent, even though the text provides a basis for it, an irrelevance in the face of greater considerations: the ‘facts’ are more complex than any ideas we might have about them. . . . Sympathy is the bit of freedom given to the reader when we look at characters who seem, like Scott’s do, so gripped by the circumstances of their lives that their own freedom has been smothered by habit. What is for us the sharpness and individuality of his characters is often for them within the novel a painfully circumscribed identity: we laugh but often they don’t.
The article is well worth reading in its entirety.

And now here's the question: Is it true that people don't read Scott anymore? I admit I haven't read The Antiquary, but I've read a modest number of Scott's novels and until this year have persisted in including Waverley on the syllabus every time I teach the early 19th-century novel course here. My special affection for this smart, funny, poignant, satirical, self-conscious novel was begun and fostered by my studies with Harry Shaw at Cornell, and repeated re-readings and, especially, re-teachings have only enhanced the pleasure I take in it (though, sadly, I can't be as confident about the pleasure my students have taken in it, though I have found that you can predict someone's overall success in the course pretty well from whether they 'get' the humour in Waverley). My favourite exam "sight passage" (future students take note) is from the end of Chapter 16:
[Waverley] had now time to give himself up to the full romance of his situation. Here he sate on the banks of an unknown lake; under the guidance of a wild native, whose language was unknown to him, on a visit to the den of some renowned outlaw, a second Robin Hood perhaps, or Adam o' Gordon, and that at deep midnight, through scenes of difficulty and toil, separated from his attendant, left by his guide. -- What a variety of incidents for the exercise of a romantic imagination, and all enhanced by the solemn feeling of uncertainty, at least, if not of danger? The only circumstance which assorted ill with the rest, was the cause of his journey -- the Baron's milk-cows! This degrading incident he kept in the background.
Waverley and the excesses and errors of his "romantic imagination" obviously provide much of the comedy, at least for the first two-thirds or so of the novel (along with the Boring Baron of Bradwardine)--I always recommend to my students that they count the number of times "our hero" trips, falls down, or is carried injured or unconscious away from some potentially heroic situation. But the best scene for grasping what I take Nellist to be talking about, in terms of Scott's engagement with the past, is Fergus's trial, including Evan Dhu's heart-stoppingly sincere offer of his life in exchange for his feudal master's:

Evan Maccombich looked at him with great earnestness, and, rising up, seemed anxious to speak; but the confusion of the court, and the perplexity arising from thinking in a language different from that in which he was to express himself, kept him silent. There was a murmur of compassion among the spectators, from the idea that the poor fellow intended to plead the influence of his superior as an excuse for his crime. The Judge commanded silence, and encouraged Evan to proceed. ‘I was only ganging to say, my lord,’ said Evan, in what he meant to be an insinuating manner, ‘that if your excellent honour and the honourable Court would let Vich Ian Vohr go free just this once, and let him gae back to France, and no to trouble King George’s government again, that ony six o’ the very best of his clan will be willing to be justified in his stead; and if you’ll just let me gae down to Glennaquoich, I’ll fetch them up to ye mysell, to head or hang, and you may begin wi’ me the very first man.’

Notwithstanding the solemnity of the occasion, a sort of laugh was heard in the court at the extraordinary nature of the proposal. The Judge checked this indecency, and Evan, looking sternly around, when the murmur abated, ‘If the Saxon gentlemen are laughing,’ he said, ‘because a poor man, such as me, thinks my life, or the life of six of my degree, is worth that of Vich Ian Vohr, it’s like enough they may be very right; but if they laugh because they think I would not keep my word and come back to redeem him, I can tell them they ken neither the heart of a Hielandman nor the honour of a gentleman.’

There was no farther inclination to laugh among the audience, and a dead silence ensued.

(Haven't read it? You really should! Here's an etext, though you'll probably want an edition with lots of notes.)

Let's see: I've also read The Bride of Lammermoor, The Heart of Midlothian, The Talisman, Kenilworth, Old Mortality, Ivanhoe, and Redgauntlet (on which I actually published an article once). That's not really very many, considering the man's vast output, but I'd consider it a good sampling. I am also the owner of a battered copy of Quentin Durward inscribed to my grandfather as a Christmas gift in 1910, from the boys' school he attended. (I'm guessing that he was more excited about Quentin Durward than he was the volume of Mrs. Hemans's poems they gave him in 1912 "for good conduct"!)

So, what about it, dear readers (to use a very Victorian address)? Do people read Scott anymore? What Scott have you read, what are your favourites, and what would you say is special about the experience he offers us as readers?


Pacifist Viking said...

I've read *Ivanhoe* and *Rob Roy.* I was really into Alexandre Dumas' three musketeers saga for a while, and I thought I'd try some other Romantic historical fiction. I have to admit, Scott didn't quite stick with me like Dumas did. Scott just doesn't have Dumas' flair.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

"Waverley", "The Tale of Old Mortality", "The Heart of Midlothian", "The Bride of Lammermoor", "Ivanhoe", "Redgauntlet".

"Old Mortality" is easily my favorite; "Ivanhoe" is close to a dud. I hate to say it, PV, but you may have read the wrong Scott.

More to come at Wuthering Expectations. You've inspired me to gather my thoughts on Scott.

Rohan Maitzen said...

PV, I think AR is right: you may have tried the wrong ones. At least, I've never especially warmed to Ivanhoe, though with my interest in historical fiction I've always thought I should like it better than I do, and I keep meaning to give it another try.

I forgot to mention "The Two Drovers," which I think is a great primer on the kind of historical ideas Scott is interested in. It has humour, pathos, suspense--it prompts reflection on the possibilities of cross-cultural communication and sympathy--and it concludes its great "buddy story gone terribly wrong" with a judge's summary, the kind of ingredient in Scott that might alienate someone who just wants the plot and characters to speak for themselves but forces us into contemplation of the action in a broad historical and political (and, not incidentally, ethical) context.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Thanks for the "Two Drovers" recommendation - very glad I read it. It (reinforced by "Redgauntlet") has introduced doubts about the conventional wisdom that late Scott is no good.

Unknown said...

I think academics read Scott, given that his star has been ascending rapidly among Romanticists (it's amazing how many books on Scott have been published in recent years). Also, students trained by James Chandler at the U of Chicago certainly read Scott :)

Let's see--I've read The Bride of Lammermoor, The Heart of Midlothian, Waverley, Redgauntlet, Old Mortality, The Antiquary, Kenilworth, Guy Mannering, Rob Roy, Ivanhoe, Quentin Durward, the short stories, and some of Scott's nonfiction (biographies, essays). Alas, I have to read The Monastery (and probably The Abbot) for Book Two; even diehard Scott fanatics have never had much nice to say about either of them.

I'd probably recommend the short fiction, Heart, and Old Mortality to a Scott newbie. People don't always respond well to the historical novel/Gothic mix in The Bride, I've found.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Ah, but academics, notoriously, will read anything, including long anti-Catholic novels... :-)